The subway breathes. Exhale; doors open and a steady stream of people pours out into the brightly lit station. Inhale; another stream flows in, filling the emptied car once more. The doors close, a breath held, as the train submerges back into the darkness of the tunnel. A light ahead, another station. Stop. Doors open. Breathe.
Claire Brown watches this process repeat itself many times, her head leaning against the cold window of the train. She sits alone, though many people surround her. She loves this feeling: the comforting anonymity of a busy city. Without anyone to recognize her she is no one — a liberation from expectations and the rigid confines of identity. Simultaneously, she could be anyone. Stripped of all ties, she has a chance to rebuild herself anew.
She smiles, watching the darkness pass by her window. When yet another island of light approaches, she reaches for the canvas shopping bags on the floor beside her feet. The subway slows to a halt and she hefts them up, heading for the door.
Moving through the busy station is less a conscious act than a matter of current. The milling people press her up the stairs and out onto the thoroughfare. Sagging clouds obscure the sun and she hurries to orient herself, searching for the street that will lead her home. She rushes along, readjusting the bags on her shoulders.
The rain starts slowly, but the drops are substantial and Claire chastises herself for not thinking to buy an umbrella. She glances down at the contents of her bags. Many items are in plastic packaging. The towels and clothes she can dry. It is the paper bag of cat food that makes her hesitate. She slows her stride, looking up at the sky and then back down to the winding street. It is a ten minute walk, at least. She sighs and looks around for a place to take shelter. Or maybe somewhere she can buy an umbrella.
There are a number of restaurants here, interspersed with some boutique shops. A chocolate store. A hair salon. A tiny art gallery. Nothing that seems likely to have an umbrella, and so she opts for sweet-smelling cafe where she can hide until the rain lets up. She hopes it will let up.
The glass case by the counter is filled with tempting treats — cookies, squares, tarts, pies. She chooses a morning-glory muffin and orders a Chai tea. When her order arrives she finds a comfortable seat by the window, pulling her bags in and under the table so that they will not trip nearby patrons or staff. She watches the winding trails of rain on the glass and tries not to think about what she will do if the storm worsens instead of relents. If only she had a book to read the moment would be perfect. The image of a familiar shelf, overflowing with books, rises unbidden to her mind. She wishes she had chosen at least one to accompany her on this journey, but they hadn’t felt like hers to take.
“Kitty!” a small girl near the counter shouts, pulling away from her older brother’s grip and drawing Claire’s attention.
“Rory! Come back here!” The boy is young too, perhaps eight years old. His sister looks to be two or three. Both are a mess of brown curls and freckles, unmistakeably siblings.
The girl rushes towards Claire, pointing towards her table. “Kitty! Look Wessy – kitty!”
Claire looks around, searching for the source of the girl’s excitement. She notices the grey tabby on the cat food package sticking out of one of her bags. The boy notices it at the same time and comes to a halt, his attention flickering from the bag and up to Claire.
The little girl stops at Claire’s knees and points at the bag. “Cat food.”
Claire smiles, enjoying her unexpected company. “You’re right! Do you have a kitty?”
“Mhm,” the little girl nods.
“No you don’t,” the boy says, coming up slowly behind her. He stands awkwardly, staring at Claire. He thinks for a moment, “Do you have a cat?”
Claire laughs. “Actually, I don’t! My landlady has a cat. She accidentally bought dog food and I had to go shopping anyway. I offered to grab some cat food while I was out.”
The boy’s expression is stern. “Dog food?”
“Yes! Isn’t that silly?” Claire laughs again and the little girl giggles too.
“Sara’s such a goof!” the girl says.
“What?” Claire’s smile fades as she struggles to piece together the significance of what was just said.
“I’m sorry, are they bothering you?” A man stands behind the boy now, his hands filled with paper bags and a tray of hot drinks. He is tall and thin, his short, dark hair peppered with grey.
“Uh, no. No, not at all. They were looking at my cat food.” Claire glances down at the bag, still trying to make sense of the girl’s words.
“It’s Sara’s cat food!” the young girl shouts.
“Oh honey,” the man corrects, “This cat food belongs to the lady here. Not all cat food is for Ginger.”
“Actually,” Claire interrupts, finally accepting the absurdity of the situation, “I think she’s right.”
The man’s eyebrows knit together and he looks at his children, then back to Claire. Claire opens her mouth to explain, but it is the boy who speaks first.
“Sara told me and Rory to make sure the cat food gets home safely…” the words are quiet, almost mumbled, but Claire and the man look up at each other in obvious understanding. Rory nods emphatically.
“That’s why she was so interested in the bag,” Claire says, smiling and shaking her head in disbelief.
“So you’re the new tenant?” the man asks. When Claire nods he laughs, gesturing to a larger table not far away, “Care to join us for a few minutes?”
Claire takes him up on the offer, lifting her bags over to her new seat. The man introduces himself as Jamie Gallagher, one of the renters on the second floor.
“Claire Brown,” Claire takes the man’s outstretched hand, “I’m on the third floor. In the tower.”
“The rooms are beautiful aren’t they? We probably don’t have quite the same view, but it’s a wonderful old house. When Rory was born we were living in this musty little basement, so it was quite the improvement. Where are you from?”
“Uh… Benton. It’s a small city North of here. About a three hour train ride.” Claire takes a sip of tea, apprehensive of talking about her past. She is reluctant to relinquish any of the freedom that has come from leaving it so far, and so completely, behind.
“I’ve heard of it, but never been. Rory, don’t touch your brother with your messy chocolate fingers. Here, wipe them off.” He turns and wrestles with Rory who wants nothing to do with the proffered napkin. Claire smiles and her brief moment of tension dissipates. She takes advantage of this distraction to change the conversation.
“So this is Rory?” she points at the struggling girl. Rory grins while still dodging her father’s advances with the napkin. Claire turns to the boy, “And what’s your name?”
“Wesley,” he answers. His voice is quiet, unsure.
“Hi Wesley. So how old are you?”
“Nine,” he says.
Claire nods, though she had guessed him younger. “It must be a lot of work, helping out with your little sister. Is it tough being the older one?”
He smiles and nods, happy that someone understands his plight. “She’s alright though. When she listens. Which is pretty much never.”
Claire and Jamie laugh. Rory sticks her tongue out at Wesley, who returns the gesture in kind. They continue on for a while, making faces and hurling amusing insults at each other. Definitely siblings, Claire thinks.
“Alright, alright,” Jamie breaks them up and finishes the last of his coffee. “Finish up your hot chocolate Wesley. We have to get this date square back to mom.”
“Momma’s sick,” Rory tells Claire very seriously. She follows it with a couple of fake coughs and a sneeze.
“She has a cold so we wanted to surprise her. Date squares are her favourite,” Wesley explains.
“Would you mind walking with us?” Jamie entrusts Wesley with a paper bag containing the precious square and lifts Rory up into his arms.
“Umm,” Claire looks outside to the slick sidewalks, still teeming with rain. Her face grows warm, “I didn’t bring an umbrella.”
Jamie smiles, “That shouldn’t be a problem.”
The four of them walk down the sidewalk together. Jamie carries Rory who holds their umbrella (mostly) over their heads. Claire holds the second umbrella, sharing it with Wesley who stays close by her side and carries one of her bags. He looks up at her occasionally, but drops his gaze whenever she returns it. He is very polite and tells her stories about school and all of the times Rory has gotten him into trouble.
When they arrive at the enormous house, Claire hesitates at the front steps.
“What’s wrong?” Wesley asks. Jamie and Rory are already opening the door.
“I’m still not used to… coming home, I guess. I’ve only been here a couple of days so it’s weird to think this huge place is where I live.” Claire looks down and this time the boy meets her eyes. He reaches up slowly and takes her hand.
“Yeah,” he says, and they both turn to look at the blue door. It is open, waiting for them. They walk inside, hand-in-hand.
Jamie drops his umbrella in the stand at the entrance and Claire follows his lead.
“We all leave them here,” he tells her, “We’re heading up to give mom her surprise. When she’s better, I’m sure she’d love to meet you.”
“I’m sure we’ll run into each other again soon,” Claire says before waving them up the stairs. Rory waves back frantically, blowing kisses at every step. Claire laughs, and shakes her head.
“Meow,” Ginger appears from nowhere and rubs against her legs. She stops to sniff the bags resting at Claire’s feet, “Meow.”
Claire leans down, petting the tabby’s short fur. Ginger runs back and forth under her hand, still meowing loudly. Sara emerges from the back hall.
“Oh good, you made it home safely,” she walks to Claire and lifts the small cat into her arms. Ginger lifts her head to smell and then nuzzle the woman’s chin.
“Jamie, Wesley and Rory walked me home.”
Sara nods, as if expecting as much. Claire lifts the cat food from her bags and Sara places Ginger back on the ground to take it.
“Thank you again for this, I really appreciate it. Did you find your way around easily enough?”
“It was really the least I could do. And I’m getting the hang of it. I like the subway, it’s kind of relaxing.”
Sara stands silently for a minute, inspecting Claire’s face. Claire is slowly getting used to this; Sara often takes thoughtful pauses when they speak. A sign of a busy mind, her grandmother would say.
“Let me know if there’s something you need. A place you need to find. I can give you directions,” she says finally.
“An umbrella, actually,” Claire laughs, “I forgot to buy one when I was at the mall.”
“There’s a small plaza a few blocks away that should have a drug store. Just go left and follow the street around the corner. Or there’s one across the street from the subway station.”
“I didn’t even notice,” Claire laughs, “Thank you. I’ll run out when the rain slows. I better get my stuff upstairs.”
Claire gathers her bags and Sara turns to leave the way she came. Just before Claire reaches the second floor she stops, hearing Sara’s voice.
“I’m sorry?” she asks, unable to make out her words.
“A bookstore. If you turn right after the cafe next time, you’ll find one.”
Sara’s footsteps echo through the hall, fading toward the kitchen. Claire remains frozen on the stairs.
She doesn’t remember asking for a bookstore. Perhaps Sara was making an assumption; she is prone to that sort of thing. Anticipating people’s needs. Claire shakes her head and continues up the stairs. She unlocks her door, closing it and locking it again once she is inside. She sets the bags on the floor in front of the counter. Bending, she begins to unpack her new belongings – towels, bath supplies, utensils. She stops suddenly, a small kettle in her hand.
“I didn’t mention a cafe,” she whispers to the empty apartment.